The third time is a charm, the saying goes.
I hope so.
I’m in Detroit for Kendra’s high school reunion, but it didn’t stop me from squeezing out a bit of writing. Below is my third raw and unedited submission to Longshot Magazine, whose ordained theme for this issue is debt. The previous two stories I sent in perished during editorial review: one about the New Horizons spacecraft (for the hustle-themed issue) and the next about the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (for the comeback issue).
This time I stepped away from science and did a little in-family reporting on my last name. Which may or may not be Mosher, thanks to our gambling-rich bloodline.
I want to be skeptical that the core story is true, but something tells me that it is.
Anyway, enjoy. As an added bonus, I’ve posted the conversation I had with my father.
The Family Debt
DETROIT — Every family harbors a figurative closet of skeletons. The bizarre relatives, deep abscesses of financial debt and unspeakable acts. My family is no different.
Yet one piece of history that creeps in the shadow of the Mosher namesake is a curious claim bordering on the unbelievable. If true, my last name is not real, and the byline of this article is, technically speaking, an error.
Bits and pieces of the fable have reached my ears over the past 27 years, but Longshot’s theme drove me to seek the full, grown-up truth. So I called up my father, Ed Mosher, who lives in Ohio.
The story begins with a New York City furniture store owner named James.
James begat Edward around 1900, and Edward begat Jim during the Great Depression. And then Jim had my father Ed in 1954. My father followed suit and named my older brother James. James – Edward – Jim – Ed – James.
“The ones named James are the only ones successful in business and economics,” my father jokes.
My great, great granddad James was born into one of the first Lebanese families to immigrate to New York. His father beat his kin there, most of whom poured in at the turn of the 19th century, and raised his son to be a opportunistic businessman. James opened a furniture store some time in the late 1800s, and he had ample sales with other immigrant families.
But another successful family business was rising around the same time — the American Mafia.
My father blames the gambling-prone blood that courses through his side of our family, but James may have leveraged his store to squeeze a more comfortable existence out of an unforgiving metropolis. Whatever the reason, James tied himself financially to organized crime.
James’ debt with the Mafia stacked up, and the Great Depression struck. Suddenly, people needed food and a modest place to sleep — not furniture. The stress crushed James, and he died of a heart attack.
In addition to a coffin, James left behind a cold pile of IOUs addressed to criminals. This was not any ordinary debt, but the kind that follows a bloodline.
After James’ death, the mob bosses promptly informed Edward (my great grandfather) of his new arrears. Edward didn’t have any money or substantial assets, so he fled here, to Detroit, in the 1930s. A burgeoning ghetto called Delray become home, and it was there he changed his last name to Mosher and raised a family.
We don’t know our real last name for certain, but Bill Mosher, my great uncle, strongly believes it was Moushar. Considering our Lebanese roots, it’s plausible. Whatever the namesake, Edward made it Mosher “to make his name sound more American,” says my dad, and avoid the Mafia’s gun-toting bill collectors.
Decades of time have thinned but not washed away our family’s true debt: Our gambling heritage.
My grandfather Jim was a legendary gambler and, in his last great bet on the river boats of Cincinnati, signed a promissory note for his 65-acre farm over to Dick Skinner — the same bookie who had dealings with the fallen Reds player Pete Rose. Jim lost the farm and his second wife, and he died a drunk. And my father tells me that, although he never liked gambling, something deep inside of him lurches when glancing at a slot machine.
“I feel safest playing the dollar changer,” says my dad. “That’s only risk I’m willing to take.”
We’ll carry the Moushar’s debt with us forever — an IOU in the form of a name. But us Moshers? We don’t mind. We’re a different kind of family now.
All is forgiven.
Audio: An interview with my dad, Ed Mosher, on July 30, 2011. (MP3)
Image: Delray, Michigan. (Notorious4life/Wikipedia)